Monday, August 26, 2013

We are all Chelsea

The Chelsea [née Bradley] Manning issue may be a bit of a tangent for this blog, but it's related, because Manning, like Snowden, helped us spy on the Powers-That-Be, which is what I recommend on this blog. I'm not recommending breaking laws to do so, and Manning's methods were against military code -- I'll get back to that.

Meanwhile, let's examine Manning's trial and his pre-sentencing apology...

A lot of my right-wing friends started wondering within hours of "Chelsea" (formerly Bradley) Manning's announcement, "How the hell could our government give top security clearance to somebody who's obviously bonkers?"

How Not To React

Well, thankfully my right-wing friends aren't making a living as psychiatrists, since a desire for gender re-assignment is not in and of itself evidence of mental problems. If it were, of course, Manning could likely have gotten off scott free with an insanity plea, so think about that for a moment before you make sweeping pronouncements, my friends.

The answer to the question, how did somebody "like Manning" get to be an IT administrator for billions of secret documents... It's because the government, especially the military, is classifying literally TRILLIONS of pages of documents as "top secret" per year. So the government has had to hire over 4.5 million people and give them Secret clearance to manage this secret information. When you're hiring that many people in a big hurry, you can't afford to be too picky about their backgrounds. So of course, the government outsources the security clearance process to the private companies that submit the lowest bids. Does that help you sleep better at night?

Who Vets the Vetters?

But a few thoughts occur to me. For one thing, we don't know -- nobody knows except Chelsea -- exactly when he started wishing to be a woman. She says it's been since childhood. But going to war in a foreign land -- and subsequently being locked up naked in solitary confinement for a couple years -- might have crystallized some thoughts that were only vague feelings before. We know he discussed his gender identity with that Adrian Lamo guy, _at the time_ he was deciding to make the leak. (Chelsea asks to be referred to as female but I'm talking about events during the time before she made the announcement.)

Now, when you spend a few years watching innocent civilians get killed, maimed, and degraded in a war in some distant desert that appears on the surface to be arbitrary and racist, engaged-in purely to show those swarthy towel-heads that we aren't going to sit down and take it like a pussy when somebody attacks us, well there are many different ways a person can react to that. Many different ways.

If you're not the type of person who gets his rocks off on that sort of murderous posturing, if you're not the Henry Kissinger sort of person who worries about geopolitical face-saving ahead of human lives, then you might be the type of person who would react to that experience by wanting to disown his own aggression, testosterone and masculinity.

But that's just my speculation. Okay I haven't actually commented on Manning's apology, when I said I would. Here's the full text without commentary:

Manning's Unsworn Statement At Sentencing

Several people on the Intertubes have already parsed the apology line-by-line, but as somebody who has both (a) worked for the government, and (b) has an interest in the information Manning leaked, well what the heck, I'll throw in my commentary too. Full disclosure, I'm pulling these quotes out of order for my own dramatic effect.

Manning wrote:
>> "I want to start off with an apology. I am sorry. I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I am sorry that it hurt the United States."

Now, others have also pointed out, Manning apologizes for "hurting" people and the country. But he doesn't use the word "harm". I feel it necessary to remind everyone that the prosecution was almost completely unable to prove that any of the alleged and predicted tangible harm to the country, people, or its interests has actually resulted from his leak, even three years later.

That's because it wasn't some kind of "treasonous" leak of battle plans, or an "info dump" as many have charged. In fact, numerous articles, including Voice of America, note that Manning worked with Wikileaks for two months to redact the information he had copied so as to protect sources and lives. Wikileaks claims it has not released 15,000 of his 90,000 documents for fear of endangering lives. They erred on the side of caution. They even asked the Pentagon to work with them to identify which parts of those 15,000 documents were actual security risks, but obviously (understandably) the Pentagon flat-out refused.

So whatever you want to call it, that's not an "info dump". It was vetted. 17% of it is still being withheld by the co-leakers, three years later, for just that reason, that it might endanger lives.

Pundits have been arguing for three years now about whether or not the leak did actual harm. In the end I guess Wikileaks and Manning must have done a pretty good job vetting. Because in his trial, the prosecution said they had spent $6 Million and 10 months assessing the damage caused by his leak, but they could only claim one informant in Afghanistan had been killed as a result, and they didn't even want to give his name. So, after figuring out that the actual quantity of damage was in fact minor -- in order to proceed with the kangaroo court, the judge ruled that assessments of the actual damage done by the leak was not relevant to the charges. Hey, can't nail him one way? We'll figure out another.

Military Resources Spent On Assessing Leak

Reuters: Manning's Damage

So let's just dispense with the idea that Manning had done real harm to the nation. He's just paying a price for defying authority and hierarchy. Essentially, he's a political prisoner; the American equivalent of a journalist in a repressive country who irreversibly brought to light things that the regime wanted kept secret.

Let it never be said that few or no Leftists are going to criticize this Administration or have noticed this ominous slide. Even the ACLU is speaking up against the Democratic Administration here:

Beyond Bradley Manning

If it wasn't for the Obama Administration's documented habit of punishing whistleblowers to the maximum extent of the law, we might not be able to conclude that the Obama Administration was intentionally trying to set a precedent of threatening the DEATH PENALTY against people who leak democratically useful but unauthorized information to the press. Instead, that record on the Obama Administration exists, and they are threatening death to leakers.

Back to Manning's apology:

>> "I can't go back and change things. I can only go forward. I want to go forward. Before I can do that though, I understand that I must pay a price for my decisions and actions."

Okay at least there's one small silver lining I can talk about. Manning pled guilty to charges that carried a 20-year prison term, but the government decided not to plea bargain. They charged him with crimes which may conceivably have carried the Death Penalty -- "Aiding the Enemy" -- but they didn't argue that he deserved to die. They merely opened the "Aiding the Enemy" charge in order to set the precedent and reserve the Death Penalty for their future use.

As most of us know by now, the specific charges she was convicted of [switching pronouns because she announced her gender change during the sentencing] could have carried something like 90 years of imprisonment. The judge sentenced her to 35 years.

Still, the fact that she "only" got 35 years in the sentencing phase, shows that all hope for this country has not quite been lost yet. It may well be that 35 years is the price of civil disobedience. That's how civil disobedience works. In that case, well, the only thing the rest of us can do is support her morally as she pays her sentence. That's what she appears to want, that's what law-abiding citizens should want. She may be eligible for parole in a decade or two. Assuming she's not pardoned, which to me appears laughably unlikely, perhaps that's the next best thing.

>> "In retrospect I should have worked more aggressively inside the system as we discussed during the Providence Statement and had options and I should have used these options."

This is where my own experience as a government employee becomes relevant. Manning says in his apology that he should have worked more through channels. Believe me, I know "channels". It is easy to know when you're getting the runaround, when those in charge of the "channels" are throwing up endless barriers against your issue. They can keep doing that forever -- never addressing your issue, never letting you run out of options that you are supposed to keep trying in order to keep working within the system. The bureaucratic equivalent of "Voice Mail Hell" exists and it's a powerful tool in the service of blocking needed change. At some point in the endless bureaucratic runaround, you have to make a decision for yourself. You have to decide whether to drop your issue and live with your issue never being resolved, or you have to make a decision to go off the reservation.

But let's set that aside for now. What would have happened if Bradley Manning had successfully pursued his options, all the way up "channels" to the top of the process?

Anyone who's worked for a government agency can tell you exactly what would have happened, even if Manning had managed to get all the way up to the top of the work-within-the-system issue resolution process.

The government, like any big organization, would have acted on the specific rather than the general. That's what bureaucracies do. Blinding themselves to the forest, by way of investigating particular trees. The 4 specific helicopter pilots involved with the "Collateral Murder" incident would have been disciplined and/or required to go to sensitivity training. The 142 specific State Department diplomats whose nasty-grams were kept internally classified would have received a stern letter about adopting a more positive phraseology even in internal written communications. And probably more sensitivity training. Maybe even some administrative leave while attending sensitivity training.

Had Bradley Manning actually succeeded in going up channels, a few specific transgressions would have received correctional action, but the policies that lead the US to commit those types of transgressions, on a global scale, hundreds and thousands of times per day, would have continued unabated.

Does that sound like what Bradley Manning was trying to accomplish? Does that sound like what the country needs?

Note: although the military investigation concluded that the pilots were justified, that seems to be belied by soldiers in the same actual air company unit apologizing: from the pilots, "what was shown in the Wikileaks video only begins to depict the suffering we have created. From our own experiences, and the experiences of other veterans we have talked to, we know that the acts depicted in this video are everyday occurrences of this war: this is the nature of how U.S.-led wars are carried out in this region."

As for the diplomatic cables leaked: there isn't a single example of a US policy that Manning's leaked information actually prevented anyone from carrying out. The venality of US diplomats in some of the leaked communiqués certainly ruffled some feathers, but it's not as if France is going to suspend trade with us because French diplomats didn't already know that US negotiators are typically arguing on behalf of American corporate interests. Conversely, it's not as if Pakistani officials would have fawned over our diplomats and thrown roses at us if only they didn't know that we intend to bomb disputed areas of their country. THEY LIVE THERE. They already knew that.

The policies that Manning's leaks did prevent the US government from carrying out are all unwritten ones: the policy to shield the American People, not our enemies, from the human costs of war and gunboat diplomacy -- so that the American people keep on supporting those things. The policy where the Administration pretends, to the domestic populace, that our diplomats are out there seeking truth, democracy, human rights and justice all over the world -- when in real life, most of the time we're merely seeking favorable trade deals for private US and nominally-American international companies.

But back to Manning's statement:

>> "I look back at my decisions and wonder how on earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly [have believed] I could change the world for the better or the decisions of those with proper authority."
This is what it takes to make a plea for mercy from this government these days. You have to out-and-out admit that the average people, even people with training and technical expertise, have no right or hope of changing the minds of "those with proper authority".

Does that strike anyone else as a dangerous path for this country? It does to me.

If America is the Land of the Free, how does that sit with the idea that a junior analyst can't possibly use his individual actions to change the world for the better or change the minds of people with authority?

If America is the Land of the Free, how does that sit with the idea that we don't dare second-guess the decisions of that privileged political class who's "in the know"? Hasn't that been the rationale of despots for millenia, that the common people aren't smart enough to be trusted with making decisions about the things their governors do in their name?

Does that strike anyone else as an apt description of our political process, our voting process, where we have to pick one of the two parties and yield to their authority, and then we are obligated to support that political party no matter what they do or how we might disagree with them?

We are all Bradley Manning. We are all trying to understand what these big, complex, hierarchical organizations -- both government, and business -- are carrying out, supposedly in our names.

The next question is, will we all realize this before or after we wind up in the cell next to him.

1 comment:

  1. Snowden's and Manning's situations were very similar, which is part of the reason I bring this up. Hat tip my friend Matt, this Slate article really describes Snowden's situation well. Written policy and common sense say that you're not supposed to bring a whistleblowing concern to a superior who's involved in the abuse. And in this situation it's obvious the abuse had orders and approval from the very top. So if you need to blow the whistle on the President of the United States, you have to go to the people in general. I'm so very sick of Democratic politicians and their apologists trying to convince me that, really in their deepest heart of hearts, they're sympathetic to my point of view, but they're somehow trapped on a ride they can't get off of. No, that's not the case. The source of my concerns these days is typically the policies and decisions of the actual Democrats themselves. Sorry, Obama, There Were no other avenues for Snowden's Whistle-Blowing